Iran’s Malign Intelligence Activities

Historical Background and Structure

Iran’s intelligence apparatus is a secretive and deliberately opaque web of organizations, all of which are ultimately subservient to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. The regime’s core objectives are to internally preserve and externally spread the Islamic Revolution and its Khomeinist doctrine.

Khomeinism is a radical Shi’a Islamist ideology that fuses religion and politics, utilizing the principle of velayat e-faqih (guardianship of the Islamic jurist) to anoint a learned Islamic jurist as supreme leader who holds final authority over all affairs of state. Under Iran’s revolutionary system, velayat e-faqih is invoked to demand loyalty to and justify the authoritarian role of the supreme leader based on divine right.

Iran’s primary methods of regime preservation and revolutionary expansion center on coercion, censorship, and torture at home, and terrorism, criminal enterprises, assassinations, and subversion abroad. Iran’s intelligence services are vital elements of these efforts, playing a malign leading role in the Islamic Republican regime’s support for terrorism and crackdowns against opposition.

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Historical Background

The groundwork for today’s Iranian intelligence system was laid in pre-revolutionary Iran under the rule of the Shah of Iran, Mohamed Reza Pahlavi. In 1957, the U.S. provided the Shah with financial and technical assistance to create the National Security and Intelligence Organization (SAVAK). SAVAK’s primary functions were to monitor internal opposition and protect Iran’s government and armed forces against communist infiltration. SAVAK’s power within the Shah’s Iran grew to the extent that the organization was seemingly above the law, with the authority to arrest any individual suspected of anti-regime activism. Dissidents were sometimes tortured and detained indefinitely, most notably at SAVAK’s notorious Evin prison complex in Tehran, which is used similarly by the present regime. SAVAK became a feared instrument of repression with a reputation inside Iran for brutality, and eventually transformed Iran into a police state through its “vast informant networks, surveillance operations, and censorship.”

 

SAVAK’s heavy-handedness contributed to the anti-monarchical sentiment which eventually toppled the Shah and ushered in the 1979 Islamic Revolution, led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founding father of the Islamic Republic and its first supreme leader. Khomeini’s revolutionary government immediately set about establishing a variety of intelligence services in order to identify and eliminate enemies within and outside Iran’s borders. At the local level, intelligence and security were handled by informal, neighborhood-based intelligence committees known as kumitehs which functioned as freelance militias that sought to uphold revolutionary ideology and adherence to Islamic mores.

 

At the national and international level, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) was formed several months into the revolution on May 5, 1979 and immediately took over as the regime’s primary security force, equipped with a constitutionally ordained mandate to “guard the Revolution and its achievements.” The IRGC was formed from a core of some 700 Khomeini loyalists who had received military training at Amal and Fatah training camps in Lebanon’s Bekaa valley while Khomeini was exiled in Najaf, Iraq. In effect, the IRGC was tasked with enforcing loyalty to velayat e-faqih and preserving the Iranian clerical regime, as well as exporting the Islamic Revolution.

 

During the IRGC’s formative years, it was focused predominantly on eliminating domestic threats to the nascent revolutionary order, serving as the country’s most active intelligence organization for the first five years after the revolution. The IRGC was involved in the suppression of violent, counterrevolutionary organizations such as the Mujahideen e-Khalq (MEK), Forghan (a militant anti-clerical Shi’a organization) and Communist Tudeh party. The MEK and Forghan were not merely political opposition movements, but terrorist groups that routinely carried out bombings and assassinations targeting Iranian officials.

 

One of the IRGC’s first orders of business was to purge the Shah’s military and intelligence services in order to eliminate vestiges of monarchical support. The IRGC overran SAVAK’s headquarters in 1979, providing them access to a treasure trove of SAVAK’s internal security files. The Guards apprehended many former SAVAK agents and executed dozens of senior intelligence officers over the next few years.

 

Rather than completely dismantling SAVAK, however, Iran’s post-revolutionary regime sought to build upon its formidable foundation and maintain a robust surveillance apparatus. The regime established the National Intelligence and Security Agency (Sazman Ettela’at va Amniat Melli Iran, or SAVAMA) as the direct successor to SAVAK. SAVAMA focused primarily on collecting foreign intelligence, utilizing SAVAK’s intelligence infrastructure and capabilities and copying its methods. Iran granted many former SAVAK agents amnesty, seeking to capitalize on their skills and integrate them into service on behalf of the revolutionary regime. The expertise of former SAVAK agents was in acute demand due to intelligence needs stemming from the Iran-Iraq War, which began in 1980. In addition to the threat from Iraq, the clerical regime needed to gather intelligence on counterrevolutionaries and dissidents overseas plotting against the Islamic Republic. In 1984, the kumitehs and SAVAMA were merged and the Ministry of Information of the Islamic Republic of Iran (MOI) was formed by parliamentary decree. The MOI is Iran’s premier civilian internal and external intelligence service, constitutionally designated as the country’s highest intelligence authority.

Structure

Iran’s system of governance has a complex structure, which is difficult for outsiders to grasp. Its intelligence apparatus is even more convoluted, exacerbated by organizations having unclear and often overlapping mandates, duplication of efforts, and frequently shifting responsibilities. Ultimately, the supreme leader, currently Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is vested with authority to direct Iran’s foreign and domestic policy, serving as commander in chief of Iran’s conventional and IRGC forces, and the overseer and chief customer of all of Iran’s intelligence agencies.

 

Iran has two major intelligence services – the MOI and the intelligence office of the IRGC – which compete for influence and primacy. Iran’s complex system of intelligence agencies was developed so that no organization would have a monopoly over intelligence gathering and operations, but at the same time, the MOI formally sits atop the intelligence hierarchy.

 

Due to events both inside and outside Iran, the division of powers and responsibilities between the MOI and IRGC has evolved with each group taking on more specialized roles. Since 2003, the MOI has played no role whatsoever in external militia operations or significant assassinations overseas. The IRGC’s intelligence unit owns these operations in conjunction with the Quds Force, its foreign expeditionary arm. The MOI’s overseas role, meanwhile, has evolved in a more traditional, espionage-oriented direction. While there is occasional bureaucratic friction between the MOI and IRGC, both share the objective of preserving Iran’s revolutionary Islamist regime and upholding velayat e-faqih, and therefore do cooperate and share intelligence. In recent years, Supreme Leader Khamenei has moved to exert greater control over both the MOI and IRGC as they, in addition to the police and army, form his personal power base within the regime.

Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security logo. Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security logo.

According to the Federal Research Division of the U.S. Library of Congress, “MOI is the most powerful and well-supported ministry among all Iranian (cabinet) ministries in terms of logistics, finances, and political support,” although its budget is kept secret. All government agencies, ministries, institutions, military, and police forces are expected to share information and intelligence with the MOI. This includes the IRGC and the Quds Force, which trains and directs terrorist proxies and militias.

The MOI is a cabinet-level agency whose head, the minister of intelligence, is appointed by Iran’s president, the second-ranking official in the Iranian system. This gives the president a degree of authority over the MOI which he lacks over IRGC intelligence. However, a special law dictates that the minister of intelligence must always be a cleric, giving the supreme leader, who sits atop Iran’s clerical hierarchy, additional influence over the ministry.

In 2014, the MOI revealed that the Minister of Intelligence directs a coordination council that oversees 16 different intelligence agencies. The MOI’s primary functions are the collection and analysis of intelligence; infiltrating and suppressing opposition and dissident organizations; thwarting threats to Iran’s revolutionary order and territorial integrity; and maintaining liaisons with Iranian proxies abroad in order to expand Iran’s ideological influence and abet terrorist and militant operations.

Iranian MOI officers are required to be adherents of the regime’s “Twelver Shia” theology and loyal to the doctrine of velayat e-faqih. Recruits go through intensive background checks to ensure their loyalty to the Islamic Republic before they undergo training at sites in northern Tehran and Qom. The MOI’s Foreign Directorate identifies potential agents outside of Iran sympathetic to the aims of the Islamic Revolution. Willing recruits are then brought to the MOI’s training facilities before being dispatched into their home countries, where they engage in espionage and disinformation campaigns on behalf of the Iranian regime. The MOI’s foreign recruiting pool is primarily drawn from Muslim countries having a strong Shi’a presence (Sunnis are sometimes recruited as well, mostly due to financial motivations), such as Iraq, Lebanon, and the Gulf States, and extends as far afield as Latin America, which has a sizeable population of Lebanese expatriates.

The other major power center in Iran’s intelligence apparatus is the IRGC’s intelligence office, which operates apart from the MOI, both domestically and externally through the Quds Force. Although the MOI is constitutionally above the IRGC in Iran’s intelligence hierarchy, in recent years the IRGC’s intelligence office has competed with MOI for power and influence.

The full scope of the responsibilities of the IRGC’s intelligence office is unknown, as is the extent to which the office acts independently of the IRGC itself. One of its core functions is providing security for Iran’s nuclear program, of which the IRGC serves as the caretaker. IRGC intelligence is responsible for ensuring the safety and security of nuclear facilities including by preventing sabotage and infiltration by foreign intelligence agencies. Another function of the IRGC’s intelligence office is to coordinate the intelligence gathered by the basij, a paramilitary domestic security and police force that suppresses domestic opposition to the regime through street violence and intimidation. While the MOI took over as Iran’s premier internal intelligence agency upon its founding in 1984, the IRGC has maintained a parallel security division, the Sazman e-Harrasat, which functions as a domestic spy agency tasked with monitoring and dismantling opposition networks. Arrested dissidents are frequently held in IRGC-controlled prisons.

Power Struggle

The Law Enforcement Force of the Islamic Republic of Iran breaks up a demonstration The Law Enforcement Force of the Islamic Republic of Iran breaks up a demonstration.

The competitive relationship between the MOI and the IRGC’s intel office is indicative of a broader power struggle in Iranian society over civilian and military control of the country’s economic and political spheres. Since the 2005-2013 presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the IRGC has gained the upper hand, taking an increasingly assertive role in Iranian politics. During Ahmadinejad’s presidency, the IRGC also capitalized on the international sanctions regime instituted in response to Iran’s illicit nuclear program to increasingly militarize Iran’s economy, taking over the dominant role in Iran’s construction, energy, automobile manufacturing, and electronics sectors. The IRGC’s entrenchment has effectively stifled the development of an Iranian private sector.

Recently, the IRGC’s intelligence activities and capabilities have far surpassed those of the MOI, further indicating that momentum is on its side in the power struggle.

Resentment over the IRGC’s actions has buttressed the political and electoral fortunes of so-called Iranian “moderates” and “reformers,” those who seek limited economic and political liberalization. Supreme Leader Khamenei, however, has cast his lot with the IRGC, doubling down in opposition to reforms. Khamenei has viewed strengthening the IRGC as a means to solidify his own legitimacy and authority within Iran, and he has thus abetted the IRGC’s growing influence.

In the intelligence arena, the aftermath of the suspect 2009 national election marked a turning point in the competition between the MOI and the IRGC’s intel office. The IRGC, with the approval of Supreme Leader Khamenei and reelected President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, cast blame upon the MOI for allowing the Green Movement protests to get out of hand. Ahmadinejad sacked his first-term Intelligence Minister, Gholam-Hossein Mohseni Ejei, and replaced him with a former IRGC officer, Heydar Moslehi. Ahmadinejad also purged a number of vice ministers from the MOI who had served as career intelligence officials. These moves served to chip away at barriers that had been erected to preserve the independence of Iran’s intelligence services in order to recast the MOI in the IRGC’s image. The appointment of Moslehi and purges among the MOI’s leadership served to consolidate IRGC and principlist (those committed to a strict interpretation of the Islamic Revolution who are resistant to any forms of liberalization) influence and create ideological conformity in the upper echelons of the MOI, which up to that point had also accommodated moderate and reformist viewpoints.

The protest movement catalyzed by the 2009 election led Khamenei to become increasingly reliant on the IRGC as the guarantor of his political survival. In addition to expanding the IRGC’s influence within MOI, Khamenei upgraded the IRGC’s intelligence units in the aftermath of the 2009 election from a “directorate” to an “organization,” giving the IRGC itself more power in Iran’s intelligence community. The 1983 Law on Intelligence which created the MOI had specifically forbade the IRGC from running an intelligence “organization.” Ayatollah Khomeini and his backers at the time, including Khamenei, believed strongly that the elected government should have the dominant role in the intelligence arena, and that military outfits such as the IRGC should only have intelligence capabilities in line with military exigencies.

Hossein Taeb, head of the IRGC Intelligence Organization. Hossein Taeb, head of the IRGC Intelligence Organization.

Underscoring the significance of the IRGC’s upgrade, Khamenei moved to appoint one of his closest confidantes, Hossein Taeb, to head the IRGC’s intelligence organization in 2009. Taeb remains in that role to this day. A staunch regime loyalist, Taeb had been a student of Khamenei during Iran’s early revolutionary period. During his career, which included stints as deputy commander of MOI counterintelligence and commander of the basij, Taeb “developed a reputation as one of the regime's most violent interrogators of counterrevolutionary and "seditionist" elements.” With his personal enforcer in place, Khamenei has endorsed granting the IRGC expansive surveillance powers. With Khamenei’s backing, the ascendant IRGC has seen bigger budgets and expanding jurisdictions.

The IRGC’s takeover of Iran’s economy, military, and intelligence sectors has engendered backlash. President Hassan Rouhani was elected twice on a platform that prioritized boosting civilian enterprises and reining in the IRGC’s pervasiveness. Rouhani has sought to restore civilian control over the MOI and curtail the IRGC’s increasing dominance over Iranian intelligence, but has had to tread lightly so as not to provoke reprisals from Khamenei, going so far as to back bigger budgets for the IRGC.

Since Rouhani’s initial election victory in 2013, the IRGC intelligence office has intensified its repression of domestic critics and activists. Following Rouhani’s reelection in 2017, the deputy speaker of Iran’s parliament, Ali Motahari, criticized Rouhani’s intelligence minister, Mahmoud Alavi, for failing to be an effective bulwark against the IRGC’s intelligence office. “Expansion of the range of activities of the intelligence units of the IRGC is not acceptable. Interference of the intelligence organs in each other’s domains is not sustainable,” said Motahari in a rebuke of the IRGC. Alavi’s response was telling: “If the supreme leader orders us to give away all of our authority to another entity, we bow and obey.” This exchange highlights the fecklessness of Rouhani and his allies’ efforts to stand up to the IRGC’s excesses. As a result, the IRGC’s intelligence organization has gained the upper hand in the power struggle, and its ascendance appears guaranteed for the near future, particularly as Rouhani has moved to make accommodations with the IRGC as an antidote to the revived protest movement that has taken root in Iran since late December 2017.